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Don't let divorce affect your child's grades

Tips for guiding children during divorce

is my divorce affecting child grades at school

Each year, more than 1 million children experience the divorce of their parents,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In fact, in 2010, Cornell University, reported that 50 percent of first marriages and 60 percent of remarriages were predicted to end in divorce in the United States. 

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Divorce affects not only a child’s psychological and emotional well being, but it also has an impact on children’s academic performance. Frustration, becoming quiet, angry and withdrawn are some of the common signs that children of divorcing parents exhibit. They may act out, experience a drop in grades, or have a hard time concentrating. But take heart parents, there are ways to guide  children during these troubling times.

Consistent rules between homes

Celeste Jones, a school psychologist in Wappingers Falls, notes that divorce often causes children to be split between households, and stresses the importance of consistent rules and expectations between homes, particularly as they pertain to school. In addition, Jones states, “Both parents should be involved with school and make a plan they can both agree on." 

Take advantage of teacher websites

For older students, Kathy Snowder, a junior high school special education teacher in Wappingers Falls, suggests requesting a second set of textbooks, allowing one set for each household. Parents should also take advantage of teacher web pages, which often list assignments, projects, class information and ways to reach the teacher.

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Make school officials aware of the family’s situation

Parents should make their child’s teacher or guidance counselor aware of the divorce. For some parents, there is a feeling of embarrassment or failure, which deters them from sharing the information with school. Kristen Griffin, a fifth-grade teacher in Red Hook, says that parents are often reluctant to let the teacher know there are problems at home. Teachers don’t need to know all the personal details of divorce, she says, but simply saying something like, ‘Some things are happening at home’ is sufficient enough for a teacher to be able to accommodate a student’s needs. And when it comes to informing the teacher of family changes, most teachers agree, the earlier the better.

Remember that teachers are there to help

Sue Tompkins, a former special education teacher in Wappingers Falls notes that teachers “…are with (students) more during the day than the parents sometimes.” Adding that parents should, “Take advantage of us. Let us help.” Tompkins also stresses parents should take an active role in the child’s schoolwork, adding that parents shouldn’t “…just take their word for it” when a child comes home saying he or she doesn’t have homework. It’s important for parents to check the child’s backpack regularly and contact the teacher to find out if the child has been missing assignments.

Children experience physical effects as well

Dr. Valerie Sprenz, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at CareMount Medical in Lake Katrine, explains that divorce can cause a combination of depression and anxiety in children leading to complaints of headaches, fatigue and abdominal pain. Dr. Sprenz notes that, “Most of the time, there’s no organic relation to it,” citing stress as the culprit.

The hardest hit may be the older child

A child’s age may have an effect on his or her ability to cope with divorce. “It’s almost easier when children are younger,” says Sprenz, since younger children may be more unaware of what is going on between parents. She explains that children in middle and high school tend to have the hardest time with divorcing parents. “Life is hard enough” at that age and adolescents may exhibit more dangerous acting out behaviors such as cutting class, substance abuse, and getting involved with the wrong crowd, all of which, says Dr. Sprenz, can “impair academic performance.”

In addition to notifying the child’s teacher, parents should also contact the school social worker or psychologist, who often run student support groups such as “Banana Splits.” Gina Sullivan, a divorced parent from Poughkeepsie, says that Banana Splits was a positive experience for her daughter. She says the group really helped, and allowed her daughter to meet “…other kids going through a situation like that.”

Kelly Lofaro, a second grade teacher in Arlington suggests parents encourage their children to keep a journal where they can write or draw pictures about their feelings. “Things tend to come out in journals that don’t always come out in conversations with parents,” says Lofaro. In addition, students with special needs tend to have a harder time with divorce.

“Learning is more difficult for them to begin with and then this is one more thing thrown in the loop.” Perhaps most important, however, is making time to talk with children about the divorce.  “Listening is critically important,” says Kathy Kreiter, Director of Sullivan County Dispute Resolution Center. Sullivan explains, “Our instinct is to fix things for our children. Sometimes in doing so, we can create a barrier.” Just listening to a child’s concerns and allowing the child to be a part of the solution process can be a healing activity.

Most experts seem to agree that despite the stress and trauma that divorce brings, parents who are able to keep their child the main focus tend to have children whose academic difficulties are just a temporary bump in the road. “If the parents can put their personal issues aside and work together, the child can usually be successful,” says Snowder.

Michele Anderson is a special education teacher, freelance writer and mother of four from Red Hook.